The untold truth of 'Fat Thor'

(In case you couldn't tell from the title, you're gonna see all kinds of spoilers for Avengers: Endgame if you stick around here.)

Avengers: Endgame brought plenty of changes to the Earth's Mightiest Heroes, from Hawkeye's edgy new Ronin persona to the debut of a smart, good-tempered version of the Hulk. No character's transformation, however, has caught as much attention as Thor's. When we're reintroduced to the God of Thunder, he's at the lowest point we've ever seen him, with a defeated mindset and a weight gain that has led him to be dubbed "Fat Thor."

Considering the famously chiseled physique that Chris Hemsworth has brought to the character in the previous Marvel movies, a bigger version of Thor is definitely a change. The fact that it was kept out of the trailers and played as a big reveal for the audience made it one of the most surprising moments in the film, but it's not just the shock that has people talking. With outrage among fans over the movie's comedic jabs at Thor's weight and the context of how superheroes deal with trauma, there's a whole lot more going on here than packing on just a few extra Asgardian pounds.

Traumavengers

It's worth noting that when Endgame shifts its focus to five years after the events of Infinity War's famous snap, the movie shows us each of the Avengers dealing with the trauma they've been through in their own way and, even before we get to Thor, it's not always healthy.

In what's probably the most productive response, we see Captain America leading a support group for survivors scarred by what would unquestionably be the biggest tragedy in the history the planet, which works on a lot of levels. It highlights the empathy and moral center that makes Steve Rogers such an appealing character, and works as a tribute to his fallen friend, Sam Wilson (alias the Falcon), who was leading a support group for veterans when they met.

The others, however, aren't quite as healthy in the way they deal with tragedy. Hawkeye goes to an incredibly violent extreme, trying to personally enforce a fairness that's absent in the seemingly random deaths by killing off the guilty to balance the loss of innocent life. Black Widow loses herself in her work, trying to fix everything she can. While Tony Stark's life post-snap is far more idyllic than the other heroes', he's still completely given up on the attempts to make the world a better, safer place that defined his life as Iron Man, refusing to use his genius to help others because, well, what's the point? These are all very different and very relatable ways of dealing with a trauma.

The incredibly contextual Hulk

And then there's the Hulk. Bruce Banner's reaction to the snap is worth diving into, both because it represents the biggest change for one of the characters and because of the relationship his character has always had with Thor throughout the history of the MCU. Since they first slugged it out on the helicarrier back in the first Avengers film, they've been competitors, and the buddy comedy of Thor: Ragnarok put them in direct contrast with each other. They both consider themselves to be the "strongest Avenger" (they hadn't met Captain Marvel yet), something that's come up multiple times in different movies, and they both abandoned Earth for their own purposes at the end of Age of Ultron. It's how they deal with the consequences of those actions that's notable.

Since his character is entirely built around psychology, making explosive anger and the reaction to trauma a literal, physical change, it makes sense that it's the Hulk, notably, not Bruce Banner, that we first see reacting to the devastation that comes along with Thanos. For him, it's something very simple: This unstoppable force of nature who literally smashed a god into unconsciousness — twice! — comes up against something he can't beat through strength. The lesson that the Hulk learns in Infinity War is the same one Thor learns at the beginning of Endgame. Sometimes, physical strength is completely meaningless. Needless to say, that's a devastating lesson for someone who is defined by physical strength.

For the Hulk, the initial reaction is another one of those maladaptive tactics. He runs away and hides. He won't even Hulk out when his life's in danger, and for the first time, Bruce Banner is free of his dark side, but instead of accepting this thing he's wanted for years, he understands that the Hulk is a part of him. He spends the five-year gap essentially going through the gamma-powered superheroic version of therapy, and when we see him again, he's unified the parts of his personality into a whole. Back in Avengers, Mark Ruffalo gave us the iconic "I'm always angry" line, but the Hulk we have in Endgame isn't mad. That slow-motion smile as he gives Ant-Man a couple tacos isn't just a punchline. This version of the Hulk is kind. He's generous. For the first time in the franchise, he's happy because he's taken that lesson to heart and worked to change himself. Unfortunately, that's one thing Thor can't do.

Twilight of the gods

In modern stories featuring mythological characters, there's a recurring theme that deals with the idea of gods as both creator and created, these purely distilled embodiments of ideas that cannot change their nature. Humans can change but the gods are constant, and while you can see that theme in books like American Gods, it's also prominent in recent comics about Thor and particularly Loki. If Loki is the god of trickery, then he's the embodiment of that idea. No matter how much he might want to change, he can never stop being the mischief-making liar that he is at the core of his character.

Thor, as we know from Ragnarok, is the God of Thunder, who storms in with a bolt of lightning and the boom of his hammer, laying waste to his enemies. He's a nearly effortlessly powerful warrior, and the entire arc of Ragnarok is devoted to the way he learns that that strength is an inherent part of his nature that comes from within, not from any of his magic weapons. It's his defining feature. So what happens when it doesn't work?

He is — or sees himself as — personally responsible for what happened. He failed to kill Thanos before he could snap, and when he finally did finish off the Mad Titan, it was too late to fix anything. For all his strength, he failed. So if that strength is within him and defines him, but it couldn't save his father, his brother, Asgard, or the billions of lives lost in Infinity War, if literally avenging their deaths didn't change anything, what's the point? That's the existential crisis Thor's dealing with in Endgame: nihilism. He failed, so why try? Why do anything if nothing matters?

Depression and substance abuse

That's where we pick up with Thor in Endgame, as someone who no longer believes that anything matters. As a result, someone whose very nature is defined by action –- he's the god of thunder and lightning, very active elements compared to the gods of more abstract, lasting concepts like "trickery" or "wisdom" — has descended into being almost completely inert. If he can't change, or doesn't believe he can change, his alternative is to just … stop.

Again, that's a very common and very relatable symptom and consequence of depression, and so is the idea that he's not just sitting around in the dark being sad. For all the film's over-the-top visuals and eventual jokes about his weight, this isn't a cartoonish portrayal of what it's like to deal with depression. We see Thor laughing, yelling at people over the Internet, and hanging out with friends, but the underlying idea, and the one that comes out when he's confronted with the idea that he could do something important — literally the thing he failed at before — is that it just doesn't matter.

There's another element of his depression that manifests itself in the film, too: He's become an alcoholic. Thor's legendary appetite for beer has always been a source of comedy in the MCU films — the gigantic, magically refilling mug that Doctor Strange gives him in Ragnarok comes to mind — but Endgame shows us the darker side of that. Like a lot of people with depression, Thor is self-medicating, and his physical change is the result of that. Thor's weight gain isn't because he's lazy or overeating, it's because of inertness and substance abuse. Sadly, that's a pretty relatable element for a lot of viewers, too.

Voluminous and alone

One of the reasons Thor's "new body" was such a surprise is there's no real precedent for it in the comics. Thor has undergone plenty of changes over the years, including time spent in various human bodies, and he was even a 6'6" frog for a few issues, but as the God of Thunder, he's always been drawn with the heroic proportions that you'd expect from a superhero.

As far as his mental state, the closest we've gotten to seeing a truly depressed Thor came when we got a glimpse of a distant future where Thor was the last surviving Asgardian. Like his movie counterpart, "Allfather Thor" was dealing with isolation and depression and the toll of millennia of battle that had left him with one arm and one eye. Unlike the listless Thor of the movie, however, Allfather Thor was more than willing to take up his hammer and fight — although his goal was a glorious death in battle, another desire that indicates his severe depression.

That doesn't mean the Thor comics have been free of fat jokes, though. For decades, one of the most prominent members of Thor's supporting cast was Volstagg the Valiant (better known as Volstagg the Voluminous), one of the Asgardian trio known as the Warriors Three. When he was created, Volstagg was inspired by Shakespeare's John Falstaff, a once-mighty warrior whose waistline was just as expanded as the inflated tales of his glory that he bragged about to the other warriors. While Volstagg was often depicted as more than a little cowardly, he's also always been a very positive character who comes through in dire situations. Also, he once survived the destruction of Asgard, only to waste away from lack of food before Thor found him and rechristened him as "Volstagg the Thin." Not exactly the best moment, but an interesting contrast to what we see in Endgame.

Relatable or insulting?

All of that forms the background, but for some members of Endgame's audience, the possible intent behind it doesn't matter as much as what makes it to the screen. As well-intentioned as it might be, and as much sense as it might make for the character, the simple fact is that Thor's body is used as a punchline frequently. The reveal of "Fat Thor" is absolutely played for laughs, and there are cracks from our heroes about his having "Cheez Wiz running through his veins." Even the scene with Thor's mother, one of Endgame's most emotional sequences, ends with Frigga telling him to "eat a salad."

Part of that undoubtedly comes from the fact that over the past decade, Thor has evolved into a much more inherently comedic character, which in turn has a lot to do with Chris Hemsworth turning out to have incredible comedic timing. The most memorable scenes in the first Thor movie include the gags about smashing coffee cups, and Ragnarok was a full-on action-comedy. That said, at the end of the day, once he's done playing "Fat Thor," Hemsworth gets to go back to being, well, Chris Hemsworth. The fat jokes are bound to sting regardless, but coming from a dude known for being superheroically ripped whose name is synonymous with "ridiculously handsome," who's wearing a fake gut for laughs, there's no way it doesn't feel like punching down.

The reaction

For some viewers, the jokes at Thor's expense were easy to forgive. Not only did they see Thor's depression and its results as relatable, but the fact that his fellow Avengers are lashing out is an equally realistic depiction of how people react under stress. These characters have always been quick to be snarky with each other, and that's part of their appeal. Additionally, while Cosmopolitan's Emily Tannenbaum expressed guilt at having initially laughed at the reveal, the essence of comedy is surprise, and Hemsworth showing up looking very Un-Hemsworthy is certainly that.

But even within the context of the film, we're still seeing superheroes making fun of someone's appearance. Context is important, but it's always worth remembering that this is fiction, and "realism" doesn't hold much water in a movie where a guy with rocket boots uses magic space pebbles to fight a 7-foot purple alien, even when it comes to the dialogue. As much sense as it might make, that's going to be a problem for a whole lot of people, and raises the question of whether we would've lost anything if it hadn't been there, or if his depression had been shown in some other way.

The result just does not sit well with a big section of the audience. In noting that she related to Thor's depression, Emily Tannenbaum wrote that "instead of tackling his issues head-on, his fellow team members repeatedly ridiculed and belittled him for his appearance, specifically his weight." At the Guardian, Lacey-Jade Christie summed up the conflict between intent and action, writing "I applaud Marvel for highlighting mental illness, particularly as it relates to veterans." But, she added, "I had hoped that we were past the point in history where we are allowed to poke fun at fat people. I was wrong."

The defense of Thicc Thor

The flip side to the anger is that while it does have the comedic reveal and the sniping insults from other characters, the action of the movie never really presents Thor's body as the problem. The climax of that emotional scene with Freya is the present-day, post-snap Thor summoning Mjolnir and realizing that despite what he's been dealing with and the guilt he's been feeling for five years, he's still as worthy and heroic as he always has been. The elation on Hemsworth's face in this scene is one of the best pieces of acting he's ever turned in, and does a lot to present him as the noble and sympathetic character that we want him to be.

Most telling, at the end of the movie, where he truly regains his godly power and makes a stand against Thanos, he doesn't just magically regain his usual, muscular body. The only change to his physical appearance is that his unkempt beard is now neatly braided. He's still as hefty as he was throughout the movie, just more confident and finally free of the nihilism that had kept him isolated and depressed for years. He's still worthy, still strong. As corny and trite as it might sound, all he really needed was to talk to someone who understood, and get help and support from his friends.

The fact that there's no real difference between the depressed, apathetic "Fat Thor" and the one who rallies at the end ("Thicc Thor"?) seems to indicate the filmmakers' sincerity in presenting the depression, not the weight gain, as the problem to be conquered. Still, the jokes at his expense are very much a part of the film, and it's hard to believe that Thor won't be showing up in future MCU films with his traditional jacked bodybuilder physique. It's always going to be a divisive element of Endgame, but the way it's treated going forward — whether with more jokes about a "shameful" weight gain than you can find in shows like New Girl or with a more sensitive attitude toward mental illness and its consequences — is going to go a long way in determining how audiences look back on it here.